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William Sherman

From: Florida

American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)

J.M. Johnson, Field Worker
John A. Simms, Editor
Chaseville, Florida
August 28, 1936


In Chaseville, Florida, about twelve miles from Jacksonville on the
south side of the Saint Johns River lives William Sherman (locally
pronounced Schumann,) a former slave of Jack Davis, nephew of
President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy. (1)

William Sherman was born on the plantation of Jack Davis, about five
miles from Robertsville, South Carolina, at a place called "Black
Swamp," June 12, 1842, twenty-three years prior to Emancipation. His
father who was also named William Sherman, was a free man, having bought
his freedom for eighteen hundred dollars from his master, John Jones,
who also lived in the vicinity of the Davis' plantation. William
Sherman, senior, bargained with his master to obtain his freedom,
however, for he did not have the money to readily pay him. He hired
himself out to some of the wealthy plantation owners and applied what he
earned toward the payment for his freedom. He was a skilled blacksmith
and cabinet maker and his services were always in demand. After
procuring his freedom he bought a tract of land from his former master
and built a home and blacksmith shop on it. As was the custom during
slavery, a person who bought his freedom had to have a guardian;
Sherman's former master, John Jones, acted as his guardian. Under this
new order of things Sherman was in reality his own master. He was not
"bossed," had his own hours, earned and kept his money, and was at
liberty to leave the territory if he desired. However, he remained and
married Anna Georgia, the mother of William Sherman, junior. She was
also a slave of Jack Davis. After William Sherman, senior, finished his
day's work he would go to the Davis plantation to visit his wife and
sometimes remain for the night. It was his intention to purchase the
freedom of his wife Anna Georgia, and their son William, but he died
before he had sufficient money to do so, and also before the Civil War,
which he predicted would ensue between the North and South. His son
William says that he remembers well the events that led up to his
father's burial; he states that the white people dug his grave which was
six feet deep. It took them three days in which to dig it on account of
the hardness of the clay; when it was finished he was put sorrowfully
away by the white folk who thought so much of him. William was a boy of
nine at that time, and he remembers that his mother was so grieved that
he tried to console her by telling her not to worry "papa's goin' to
com' back and bring us some more quails" (he had been accustomed to
bringing them quails during his life) but William sorrowingly said "he
never did come back."

Anna Georgia was a cook and general house woman in the Davis' home. She
was a half breed, her mother being a Cherokee Indian. Her husband,
William, was a descendant of the Cheehaw Indians, some of his a forbears
being full-blooded Cheehaws. Their Indian blood was fully evident,
states William junior. The Davis family tree as he knew it was as
follows: three brothers, Sam, Thomas and Jefferson Davis (President of
the Confederacy.) Sam was the eldest of the three and had four children,
viz: Jack, Robert, Richard and Washington. Thomas had four, viz: James,
Richard, Rusha and Minna. Jefferson Davis' family was not known to
William as he lived in Virginia, whereas, the other brothers and their
families lived near each other at "Black Swamp."

Jack Davis, the master of William Sherman, was the son of Sam Davis,
brother of Jefferson Davis. Thomas and Sam Davis were comparatively
large men, while Jefferson was thin and of medium height, resembling to
a great extent the late Henry Flagler of Florida East Coast fame, states
William. Many times he would come to visit his brothers at "Black
Swamp." He would drive up in a two-wheeled buggy, drawn by a horse.
Oft'times he visited his nephew, Jack and they would get together in a
lengthy conversation. Sometimes he would remain with the Davis family
for a few days and then return to Virginia. On these visits William
states that he saw him personally. These visits or sojourns occurred
prior to the Civil War. Jack Davis being a comparatively poor man had
only eight slaves on his plantation; they were housed in log cabins made
of cypress timber notched together in such a way as to give it the
appearance of having been built regular lumber. It was much larger and
of different architecture than the slave cabins, however.

The few slaves that he had arose at 4:00 o'clock in the morning and
prepared themselves for the field. They stopped at noon for a light
lunch which they always took with them and at sun-down they quit work
and went to their respective cabins. Cotton, corn, potatoes and other
commodities were raised. There was no regular "overseer" employed.
Davis, the master acted in that capacity. He was very kind to them and
seldom used the whip. After the outbreak of the Civil War, white men
called "patarollers" were posted around the various plantations to guard
against runaways, and if slaves were caught off their respective
plantations without permits from their masters they were severely
whipped. This was not the routine for Jack Davis' slaves for he gave
the "patarollers" specific orders that if any of them were caught off
the plantation without a permit not to molest them but to let them
proceed where they were bound. Will said that one of the slaves ran away
and when he was caught his master gave him a light whipping and told him
to "go on now and run away if you want to." He said the slave walked
away but never attempted to run away again. Will states that he was
somewhat of a "pet" around the plantation and did almost as he wanted
to. He would go hunting, fishing and swimming with his master's sons who
were about his age. Sometimes he would get into a fight with one of the
boys and many times he would be the victor, his fallen foe would
sometimes exclaim that "that licking that you gave me sure hurt," and
that ended the affair; there was no further ill feeling between them.

Education: The slaves were not allowed to study. The white children
studied a large "Blue Back" Webster Speller and when one had thoroughly
learned its contents he was considered to be educated.

Religion: The slaves had their own church but sometimes went to the
churches of their white masters where they were relegated to the extreme
rear. John Kelley, a white man, often preached to them and would
admonish them as follows; "you must obey your master and missus, you
must be good niggers." After the beginning of the war they held
"meetings" among themselves in their cabins.

Baptism: Those slaves who believed and accepted the Christian Doctrine
were admitted into the church after being baptized in one of the
surrounding ponds.

Cruelties: There was a very wealthy plantation owner who lived near the
Davis plantation; he had eleven plantations, the smallest one was
cultivated by three hundred slaves. Oftimes they would work nearly all
night. Will states that it was not an unusual thing to hear in the early
mornings the echoes of rawhide whips cracking like the report of a gun
against the bare backs of the slaves who were being whipped. They would
moan and groan in agony, but the whipping went on until the master's
wrath was appeased. John Stokes, a white plantation owner who lived near
the Davis' plantation encouraged slaves to steal from their masters and
bring the stolen goods to him; he would purchase the goods for much less
than their value. One time one of the slaves "put it out" that "Massa"
Stokes was buying stolen goods. Stokes heard of this and his wrath was
aroused; he had to find the "nigger" who was circulating this rumor. He
went after him in great fury and finally succeeded in locating him,
whereupon, he gave him a good "lacing" and warned him "if he ever heard
anything like that again from him he was going to kill him." The
accusations were true, however, but the slave desisted in further
discussion of the affair for "old Massa Stokes was a treacherous man."
On another occasion one of the Stokes' slaves ran away and he sent
Steven Kittles, known as the "dog man," to catch the escape. (The dogs
that went in pursuit of the runaway slaves were called "Nigger dogs";
they were used specifically for catching runaway slaves.) This
particular slave had quite a "head start" on the dogs that were trailing
him and he hid among some floating logs in a large pond; the dogs
trailed him to the pond and began howling, indicating that they were
approaching their prey. They entered the pond to get their victim who
was securely hidden from sight; they dissapeared and the next seen of
them was their dead bodies floating upon the water of the pond; they had
been killed by the escape. They were full-blooded hounds, such as were
used in hunting escaped slaves and were about fifty in number. The slave
made his escape and was never seen again. Will relates that it was very
cold and that he does'nt understand how the slave could stand the icy
waters of the pond, but evidently he did survive it.

Civil War: It was rumored that Abraham Lincoln said to Jefferson Davis,
"work the slaves until they are about twenty-five or thirty years of
age, then liberate them." Davis replied: "I'll never do it, before I
will, I'll wade knee deep in blood." The result was that in 1861, the
Civil War, that struggle which was to mark the final emancipation of the
slaves began. Jefferson Davis' brothers, Sam and Tom, joined the
Confederate forces, together with their sons who were old enough to go,
except James, Tom's son, who could not go on account of ill health and
was left behind as overseer on Jack Davis' plantation. Jack Davis joined
the artillery regiment of Captain Razors Company. The war progressed,
Sherman was on his famous march. The "Yankees" had made such sweeping
advances until they were in Robertsville, South Carolina, about five
miles from Black Swamp. The report of gun fire and cannon could be heard
from the plantation. "Truly the Yanks are here" everybody thought. The
only happy folk were, the slaves, the whites were in distress. Jack
Davis returned from the field of battle to his plantation. He was on a
short furlough. His wife, "Missus" Davis asked him excitedly, if he
thought the "Yankees" were going to win. He replied: "No if I did I'd
kill every damned nigger on the place." Will who was then a lad of
nineteen was standing nearby and on hearing his master's remarks, said:
"The Yankees aint gonna kill me cause um goin to Laurel Bay" (a swamp
located on the plantation.) Will says that what he really meant was that
his master was not going to kill him because he intended to run off and
go to the "Yankees." That afternoon Jack Davis returned to the "front"
and that night Will told his mother, Anna Georgia, that he was going to
Robertsville and join the "Yankees." He and his cousin who lived on the
Davis' plantation slipped off and wended their way to all of the
surrounding plantations spreading the news that the "Yankees" were in
Robertsville and exhorting them to follow and join them. Soon the two
had a following of about five hundred slaves who abandoned their
masters' plantations "to meet the Yankees." En masse they marched
breaking down fences that obstructed their passage, carefully avoiding
"Confederate pickets" who were stationed throughout the countryside.
After marching about five miles they reached a bridge that spanned the
Savannah River, a point that the "Yankees" held. There was a Union
soldier standing guard and before he realized it, this group of five
hundred slaves were upon him. Becoming cognizant that someone was upon
him, he wheeled around in the darkness, with gun leveled at the
approaching slaves and cried "Halt!" Will's cousin then spoke up, "Doan
shoot boss we's jes friends." After recognizing who they were, they were
admitted into the camp that was established around the bridge. There
were about seven thousand of General Sherman's soldiers camped there,
having crossed the Savannah River on a pontoon bridge that they had
constructed while enroute from Green Springs Georgia, which they had
taken. The guard who had let these people approach so near to him
without realizing their approach was court martialed that night for
being dilatory in his duties. The Federal officers told the slaves that
they could go along with them or go to Savannah, a place that they had
already captured. Will decided that it was best for him to go to
Savannah. He left, but the majority of the slaves remained with the
troops. They were enroute to Barnswell, South Carolina, to seize Blis
Creek Fort that was held by the Confederates. As the Federal troops
marched ahead, they were followed by the volunteer slaves. Most of these
unfortunate slaves were slain by "bush whackers" (Confederate snipers
who fired upon them from ambush.) After being killed they were
decapitated and their heads placed upon posts that lined the fields so
that they could be seen by other slaves to warn them of what would
befall them if they attempted to escape. The battle at Blis Creek Fort
was one in which both armies displayed great heroism; most of the
Federal troops that made the first attack, were killed as the
Confederates seemed to be irresistible. After rushing up reinforcements,
the Federals were successful in capturing it and a large number of

General Sherman's custom was to march ahead of his army and cut rights
of way for them to pass. At this point of the war, many of the slaves
were escaping from their plantations and joining the "Yankees." All of
those slaves at Black Swamp who did not voluntarily run away and go to
the "Yankees" were now free by right of conquest of the Federals.

Will now found himself in Savannah, Georgia, after refusing to go to
Barnswell, South Carolina, with the Federals. This refusal saved him
from the fate of his unfortunate brothers who went. Savannah was filled
with smoke, the aftermath of a great battle. Lying in the "Broad River"
between Beaufort, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia were two Union
gun boats, the Wabash and Man O War, which had taken part in the
battle that resulted in the capture of Savannah. Everything was now
peaceful again; Savannah was now a Union city. Many of the slaves were
joining the Union army. Those slaves who joined were trained about two
days and then sent to the front; due to lack of training they were soon
killed. The weather was cold, it was February, 1862, frost was on the
ground. Will soon left Savannah for Beaufort, South Carolina which had
fallen before the "Yankee" attack. Soldiers and slaves filled the
streets. The slaves were given all of the food and clothes that they
could carry--confiscated goods from the "Rebels." After a bloody
struggle in which both sides lost heavily and which lasted for about
five years, the war finally ended May 15, 1865. Will was then a young
man twenty-three years of age and was still in Beaufort. He says that
day was a gala day. Everybody celebrated (except the Southerners). The
slaves were free.

Thousands of Federal soldiers were in evidence. The Union army was
victorious and "Sherman's March" was a success. Sherman states that when
Jefferson Davis was captured he was disguised in women's clothes.

Sherman states that Florida had the reputation of having very cruel
masters. He says that when slaves got very unruly, they were told that
they were going to be sent to Florida so they could be handled. During
the war thousands of slaves fled from Virginia into Connecticut and New
Hampshire. In 1867 William Sherman left Beaufort and went to Mayport,
Florida to live. He remained there until 1890, then moved to Arona,
Florida, living there for awhile; he finally settled in Chaseville,
Florida, where he now lives. During his many years of life he has been
married twice and has been the father of sixteen children, all of whom
are dead. He never received any formal education, but learned to read
and studied taxidermy which he practiced for many years.

He was at one time Inspector of Elections at Mayport during
Reconstruction Days. He recalled an incident that occurred during the
performance of his duties there, which was as follows: Mr. John Doggett
who was running for office on the Democratic ticket brought a number of
colored people to Mayport by boat from Chaseville to vote. Mr. Doggett
demanded that they should vote, but Will Sherman was equally insistent
that they should not vote because they had not registered and were not
qualified. After much arguing Mr. Doggett saw that Sherman could not be
made "to see the light" and left with his prospective voters. William
Sherman once served upon a United States Federal jury during his
colorful life.

In appearance he could easily be regarded as a phenomenon. He is
ninety-four years of age, though he appears to be only about fifty-five.
His hair is black and not grey as would be expected; his face is round
and unlined; he has dark piercing but kindly eyes. He is of medium
stature. He has an exceptionally alert mind and recalls past events with
the ease of a youth. The Indian blood that flows in his veins is plainly
visible in his features, the color of his skin and the texture of his

He gives as his reason for his lengthy life the Indian blood that is in
him and says that he expects to live for nintey-four more years. Today
he lives alone. He raises a few vegetables and is content in the
memories of his past life which has been full. (2)


1. Most of his friends call him SHERMAN, hence he adopted that name.

2. A personal interview with William Sherman, former slave, at home in
Colored quarters, Chaseville, Florida

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